So much for La Liga being boring and uncompetitive. After twelve weeks in La Liga, only ten points separate first place Barcelona from 15th place Valencia. After a week where Barcelona lost at home to Real Betis and Atletico beat Athletic in a thriller, there isn’t enough space to talk about a great comeback by Sevilla against Espanyol. What a La Liga season this has been.
La Liga Weekend: Competitive Chaos
Barcelona Lose at Home to Real Betis
For the first time in over two years, Barcelona lost a La Liga game at home. It’s tough find anyone who would’ve thought that Real Betis would be the ones to break that streak. But Quique Sentien’s side are not afraid to play football, even at the Camp Nou. Their ambition and proactive style of play was the perfect match giving Betis a 4-3 win and a massive three points.
It was a vintage Sentien performance. The veteran Spanish coach has always had teams with great possession, despite having much less talent than a team like Barcelona. This Betis side do not have the talent of a Barcelona, Real Madrid or even Valencia, but they have a style that clearly worried Barcelona.
You saw it all game. Instead of sitting deep and knocking the ball long, the Betis players were patient in possession. They trusted themselves to play around Barcelona’s press and it worked, giving them all kinds of opportunities. Players like Junior Firpo, the young left-wingback, who had all kinds of space down the Barcelona right; enough time and space to score and goal and grab an assist in a Man of the Match performance.
But he wasn’t the only one having success as down the other flank as former Barcelona player Cristian Tello had just as much success. Barcelona were just so open, disorganized, and out of control. Arthur and Ivan Raktitic were particularly awful; one got subbed at half-time, the other got sent off in the 81st minute. But questions should be asked as to why he was still on the field.
Big questions have to be asked about Ernesto Valverde’s decision making in this game. First, not taking off Rakitic, who was by far the worst player on the field in this game, was a massive mistake. He decided to take off Sergio Busquets for Carles Alena with 20 minutes to go, a decision that came back to bite him straight away. The red means Ivan Rakitic will miss the next game at Atletico Madrid.
He was brought in to stabilize the team and last season he did that. This season it has been anything but stable, and there is one major difference. Last season they played 4-4-2, a system that gave cover for Sergi Roberto on the right side. Now in the 4-3-3, Roberto has no cover because it’s not like Lionel Messi is going to be tracking back. Valverde will have a job to do in order to rectify the problem without disappointing the fans.
Atletico Madrid Come From Behind
Saturday brought a big fixture between two of Spanish football’s oldest clubs when Athletic Bilbao travelled to the capital to take on Atletico Madrid. They were welcomed by a sell-out crowd at the Wanda Metropolitano full of hungry fans. Atleti were looking to build on a big mid-week win against Borussia Dortmund, while Bilbao are just trying to avoid the relegation zone.
But hanging over this game was Atletico Madrid’s injury situation. No Koke, Jose Gimenez, Lucas Hernandez, Thomas Lemar or Stefan Savic meant 19-year-old Francisco Montero started at centre back. However, it was not the youngster’s fault when Atletico went 1-0 down in the first half thanks to a back-post tap-in by Inaki Williams. But that was not the last of the scoring.
The next goal was by far the best when Thomas Partey lined up and fired an absolute screamer into the corner. It was one of those moments when the fans were begging Partey to shoot, and he thankfully obliged. But Atletico’s comeback was cut short when Williams was played in behind and held off Diego Godin while firing home a lovely finish to make it 2-1.
Godin the Hero
In the 80th minute, with a now-injured Godin essentially playing centre-forward on one leg, Atleti kept coming. They got their equalizer from a Rodri header on a corner. But then in the 92nd minute, a lovely ball in by Partey was played back Saul Niguez, helped on by Antoine Griezmann and finished home by the captain, Godin.
Godin said after the game: “I was broken… there were no changes left, I said ‘I’m staying’. I went up front as a striker who couldn’t move.” Some captain. Godin’s goal gave Atletico what Simeone called their most exciting win at the Wanda and a crucial three points. They went second on 23 points, one behind Barca with a day of games left to play.
Real Madrid Crush Celta Vigo Despite Injuries
On the face of it, it looked like a casual 4-2 win over Celta Vigo for Los Blancos. Another three points in the last game for interim manager Santi Solari. Whether or not he stays on for the season will be decided over the next two weeks, but another three points helps. Two goals from Karim Benzema, a screamer from Dani Ceballos and another Sergio Ramos panenka penalty made sure it was a great weekend for Real Madrid.
But then there are the injuries. First, Madrid had to make two first-half substitutes due to injury. Casemiro came off first in the 19th minute and then young Sergio Reguilon came off just before the break. Then, in the second half, Nacho was forced off as well. That means that, right now, Madrid have only two healthy first team defenders; Sergio Ramos and Alvaro Odriozola.
Luckily for them, they have the next two weeks to get someone healthy. It couldn’t be a better time for an international break in that respect. But it will be interesting to see if they decide to keep Solari over this break. He’s won all four of his games, and the team has looked better since he’s taken over, but with Real Madrid, nothing is for certain.